Director Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” achieves its brutal brilliance because it will not give viewers an easy out, a chance to avert their eyes from one man’s suffering at the hands of a nation’s greatest moral failure.
This story comes from a first-person account of the horrors of human trafficking and subjugation. Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir “Twelve Years a Slave” was published just months after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and the two books played crucial roles in building a case against slavery. It was not a story emanating from the relative comfort of a post-Emancipation world — when Northup wrote his memoir, the country was still a dozen years away from freeing slaves in the South, and it proved that even freedmen in the North were endangered by the system.
McQueen preserves the immediacy and hopelessness of Northup’s situation. In 1840, Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was an educated freedman living in upstate New York, working as both a skilled carpenter and a classically trained violinist when he was approached about performing a few shows in Washington, D.C. with a traveling circus. After his performances, Northup was drugged, tortured and then transported to New Orleans, where he was sold at a slave auction.
Initially, Northup was treated with a measure of noblesse oblige by his first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), but a series of further injustices result in Northup being sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a sadist who exploits the slavery system on all levels. Epps metes out horrific punishments for his own entertainment and sexually exploits young Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) while his beleaguered wife (Sarah Paulson) seethes in the background. Under Epps’ ownership, Northup is made a “driver,” a slave overseeing the fieldwork and forced to punish those under him for stepping out of line. It is this emotional component of “12 Years a Slave” that is most sickeningly resonant: by making Northup involved in his systematic torture of the men and women on his property, Epps tightens his grip on a man who intimidates him intellectually.
Ejiofor’s performance projects the endless frustration of a man separated from his beloved family by criminals and kept far from rescue with no one to vouch for his identity and free status. In “12 Years a Slave,” there is no Emancipation Proclamation being prepared to spirit Northup away from his captors, and his eventual freedom never feels certain. Ejiofor wears this sadness and sharp pain throughout the film.
While Ejiofor’s performance is the obvious centerpiece, there are superb performances throughout, including Fassbender as a personification of corrupting evil and Tulsa-born Alfre Woodard as Mistress Harriet Shaw, a former slave who is able to rise out of the fields and into a life of relative privilege.
As with his previous films, “Hunger” and “Shame,” British director McQueen dives deep into his story. There are no safe distances in “12 Years a Slave” — it is a film suffused with overwhelming sadness over unjustly spilled blood and the horror of families divided without thought or concern.
— George Lang